[Pakistani asylum seekers in Sri Lanka]
As Sri Lankan citizens and Sri Lankan civil society organizations, we are appalled by the recent arrests and deportation of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka. According to the UN, 108 Pakistanis have been deported as of 14th August. According to the UNHCR, this included at least 11 women and 8 children and families have been separated, including a pregnant woman that had been left behind after the husband was deported.
These deportations are in breach of customary international law which requires all countries to abide by the principle of “non-refoulement (no forced returns) to countries where people face imminent risks. It violates article 3 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which the Sri Lankan government has ratified. UNHCR has noted that Ahmadiyya Muslims, Shia Muslims and Christians in Pakistan may need international protection and require particularly careful examination of their asylum claims.
The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA)’s claim that the increase in number of asylum seekers is due to people falling victim due to commercially driven human trafficking networks which abuse liberal visa policy of Sri Lanka is not substantiated. The only way to find out who is genuinely fleeing persecution is a comprehensive case by case assessment by the nationally and internationally recognized agency for this, UNHCR, and not any Sri Lankan government agency. All asylum seekers have a right to this due process, under international customary law and what deportations have done is to deny asylum seekers this opportunity. Although the MEA has claimed that asylum seekers have been “encouraged to return”, in practice, they have been forcibly been deported, as confirmed by UNHCR.
UNHCR has also said that some of the latest deportees had their passports and asylum-seeker certificates seized last week, told to go to Colombo airport, where they were placed on flights to Pakistan against their will.
According to UNHCR, there are 157 asylum seekers (84 Pakistanis, 71 Afghans and 2 Iranians) detained as of 12th August. They face imminent deportation. The Lawyers Collective in Sri Lanka has noted that the laws under which the arrests and detention has happened is not clear, that victims and their families have not been informed clear and specific reasons for arrests, that no arrest receipts have been provided, that arrestees have not been produced before a competent court. They have also noted that access to lawyers have been denied and that indications are that they are arrested under the Preventive of Terrorism Act, as arrestees are being detained at Boosa detention facility run by the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID). According to lawyers, if they have been arrested under the Immigration laws, they should have been detained in the Immigration Detention facility in Mirihana.
Some of us have also heard that some asylum seekers have been subjected to torture, cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, which would be a violation of article 11 of the Sri Lankan constitution. The lack of due process also appear to be a violation of article 12 (1) of the Sri Lankan constitution. These are rights made available to all people in Sri Lanka, irrespective of their nationality and immigration status.
To the best of our knowledge, the Sri Lankan government doesn’t offer asylum seekers and refugees basic needs like housing or food. Neither does it offer them permanent resettlement. So these asylum seekers / refugees will only be in Sri Lanka temporarily, for a few months or years.
We welcome the interim order of the Court of Appeal on 15th August that has prohibited deportations of all refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR till 29th August when the case will be taken up.
We call on UNHCR to monitor and report on the implementation of the above court order and assist the courts when the case is taken up in any way possible, such as through expert input. We also call on UNHCR to take a more proactive role in responding to this crisis situation, such as by opening up 24 hour emergency hotlines in Sri Lanka and countries where asylum seekers have been deported, monitoring the situation of those who have been deported, initiating a fast track process to expedite the processing of pending asylum claims and appeals and identifying and engaging with potential countries which may offer fast track resettlement to those recognized as refugees.
We are alarmed to hear that after the court order, Police officers have gone in search of the female Pakistani asylum seeker who had petitioned the Appeal Courts. Police had also visited and questioned several Christian Clergy and employees at Church based institutions who have been supporting asylum seekers. We call on the government to strictly adhere to the interim court order and refrain from intimidating and harassing the petitioner, asylum seekers and those assisting them. We also call on the government make a public commitment to halt deportation and arrests of asylum seekers and adopt policies and practices that will offer them the protection and support that they deserve, in line with our spiritual – religious values and domestic and international legal obligations, including customary law.
We also demand that the government ensures right of due process to all those in detention, particularly access to lawyers and UNHCR to have their asylum claims processed.
Ananthy Sasitharan, Northern Provincial Council Member
Bishop Kumara Illangasinghe
Brito Fernando- Family Organisation of the Disappeared
C. De Silva – Freelance Writer
Daya Herath – Mothers and Daughters of Lanka
Dr. Jehan Perera – National Peace Council
Dr. Malathi de Alwis
Dr. Mario Gomez – International Centre for Ethnic Studies
Dr. Nimalka Fernando – IMADR Asia Committee
Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamutt- Centre for Policy Alternative
Dr. Ranil D. Guneratne – University of Colombo
Dr. Setunga Mudalige
Dr. Sonali Perera – Associate Professor of English, City University of New York
Dr. Vickramabahu Karunaratne
Dr. Zulfika Ismail
Emil van der Poorten – A Sri Lankan of conscience
Geetha Lakmini Fernando
Githanjali Amarasingham Algama
Godfrey Yogarajah – General Secretary, National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL)
Herman Kumara – National Fisheries Solidarity
Jovita Arulanantham – National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL)
Lal Wijenaike – Lawyer’s Collective
M.A. Sumanthiran – Attorney-at-law
Mala Liyanage – Law and Society Trust
Marisa de Silva
Melani Manel Perera – Journalist
Mohammed Mahuruf – Development Consultant
P.P. Sivapagasam -Human Development Organisation
Philip Dissanayake- Right to Life
Priyantha Gamage, Attorney-at-Law
Prof. A.M. Navaratne-Bandara – University of Peradeniya
Prof. Jayantha Seneviratne – University of Kelaniya
Prof. S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole
Rev. Bro. Nicholas Fernando FMS
Rev. Fr. D. Rohan – Justice, peace and Integrity of Creation – Conference of Major Religious Superiors
Rev. Fr. Emmanuel Sebamalei
Rev. Fr. Jeyabalan Croos
Rev. Fr. Nandana Manatunga – Human Rights Office
Rev. Fr. Reid Shelton Fernando
Rev. Fr. Sherad Jayawardane
Rev. Jason J. Selvaraja – Senior Pastor – Assembly of God, Chavakachcheri
Rev. Sr. M. Lazurus
Rohini Weerasinghe –Kantha Shakthi
Rosanna Flamer-Caldera – Equal Ground
Saroja Sivachandran – Women’s Centre for Development (Jaffna)
Siritunga Jayasuriya – United Socialist Party
Srinath Perera – Attorney at Law, General Secretary, Free Trade Union Centre
Sudarshana Gunawardhena – Rights Now Collective for Democracy
Sunanda Deshapriya – Journalist
Udaya Kalupathirana – INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre
Visaka Dharmadasa – Women Affected by War
 Letter from Lawyers Collective to the National Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka on 13th August 2014.
Issued on 20th August, 2014